Last week’s Westworld was a mythic mini-masterpiece, a self-contained story that showed a whole different way this show could work. This week’s episode, however – “Vanishing Point” – feels like a return to frustrating form. The sweep and power of Zahn McClarnon and Aketcheta’s showcase is gone, replaced by the ghosts of the show’s past – puzzle-box trickery, teases, reveals and monologues wielded like lethal weapons.
One deus ex machina is, in fact, literally that: Robert Ford hangs over three of the episode’s four major storylines. For Bernard, he functions like an intrusive thought – occasionally guiding his behavior, as when hijacks Lowe’s body to transmit instructions to Maeve. But more often than not, the post-life park creator simply provides unwelcome advice to his protégé. Chief among these moments is his assertion that Bernard’s only real friend, the human behavioralist Elsie, will betray him. The very idea of stabbing her preemptively in the back is so appalling to the mild-mannered host that, screaming “Get out of my fucking head!”, he hacks into his own internal computer and manually deletes the Ford-code once and for all. Then he leaves Elsie behind to keep her safe. It’s sad to see one of the only more or less caring relationships on the show come to an end, but better this way than with some dreary act of bloody treason.
Ford also pops up in Maeve’s mind, thanks to Bernard’s transmission of his viral self. He says she was his favorite creation – basically calling her the daughter he never had – and regrets trying to force her into freedom outside the park. Her “father” could/should have just opened the door and allowed her to walk out if she so chose – the way she made her own choice to return to the park in her ill-fated attempt to rescue her own “daughter I never had.” While Charlotte Hale and the company’s other “men of stone” prepare to use this techno-telepathy to trigger a mass murder-suicide among the hosts, Ford does something to free Maeve’s mind once again. Goodbye, core permissions. Hello, purposes unknown.
He also has the biggest impact in the storyline in which he takes up the smallest amount of screentime, relatively speaking. As the Man in Black and his long-lost kin Emily attempt one last rapprochement, they exchange flashbacks like tennis pros exchange volleys, centering on the night the MiB’s wife and Emily’s mother, Juliet (played by Sela Ward), took her own life. Back then, Mom as just another addict, like her Uncle Logan – not realizing that both of them had been driven to drugs and drink because they knew the darkness lurking within “Billy.” In fits and starts, we discover that Juliet heard William’s pained confession of guilt while she pretended to be asleep one night. This spurs her to retrieve her husband’s credit-card-sized digital “profile,” given to him as a gift by Ford earlier that night. What she finds confirms the darkness she’d long sensed in him, and it’s so horrifying she kills herself almost immediately. That’s right: The Man in Black monologued her to death. Later, he’ll kill his daughter even more directly.
The problem here is that neither guest star Ward nor Kaja Herbers, who plays Emily, do anything interesting in service of their own demise, beyond being angry at a man. Could this multi-flashbacked, metaphor-drenched dance of death have worked? Maybe if Juliet was more fleshed out. Maybe if Herbers were a more emotive actor. Maybe if the immediate emotional impact of their deaths on the MiB hadn’t been brushed aside with an abandoned suicide attempt and some wink-wink business about him really being a host. But Akecheta’s episode last week, which involved even fewer well-developed characters, still hit like a freight train by comparison. It feels like the exception to the rule.
Indeed, much like last week, this week’s realest moment takes place when there’s not a human being in sight. At the end of the hour, Teddy and Dolores make a pit stop on their journey to the Valley Beyond, home of the vast repository of guest data called “The Forge.” (Valley Forge – get it?!?) A short, touching flashback shows us Mr. Flood first coming online, eyes bright with optimism and goodness, immediately falling for the powered-down form of Miss Abernathy across the room. “I remember worrying you were cold,” he recalls, a statement moving in its simplicity – just one “person” caring for another’s most basic needs.
Teddy now reaches for his gun. “You changed me,” he says. “Made me into a monster.” “I made it so you could survive,” Dolores retorts. “What’s the use of surviving,” he asks, “If we become just as bad as them?” In both her brutality and her willingness to literally alter the minds of hosts to suit her needs, the “Deathbringer” is indistinguishable from her former masters. A future ruled by someone like that is a future Mr. Flood wants no part of.
But he doesn’t turn the pistol on her, as it initially seems he might. “I could never hurt you, Dolores,” he says. “I’ll protect you until the day I die.” And he does what the Man in Black couldn’t, killing himself to spare a person he loves, rather than the other way around.
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance since her transformation into the Deathbringer has been impressive in its steeliness, but her hard-ass attitude and mechanical lack of emotion have left her little to do than act like a grumpy robot unless there’s something especially traumatic for her to process. We saw how well she could play that kind of emotion when she encountered the ruin of her father, his computerized mind torn to pieces by having too much data pumped into it.
Here, over the body of the man with whom she’s shared so much, we see it again. There’s something weird and alien in how her face registers the pain of Teddy’s death, as if her internal processors have to learn what grief feels like from scratch and figure out an appropriate physical response. Her face goes weirdly flat, then asymmetrical, then contorts in an animalistic silent howl of anguish and rage. It’s acting as creation, using the face and body to build a new way of expressing a familiar emotion. You want a metaphor for how good sci-fi operates? You got it. If only Westworld gave it to us more often.
Previously: Ghost Story